Nick Smart's Black Eyed Dog and Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra live - Review

Stan Sultzmann and Julian Siegel

Tributes to British song writing and Midlands industry in a stellar double bill at Ronnie Scott's.

The fourth night of celebratory concerts to mark  Jazzwise’s 20th Birthday took the form of an exciting double header featuring the absolute cream of British Jazz.

The night began with Black Eyed Dog, the first time the music had been performed by Nick Smart and the band since his national tour a decade ago. Nick Drake’s words and music have provided inspiration for many jazz vocalists and instrumentalists including Andy Bey, Brad Mehldau, Norma Winstone and Claire Martin. And of course Nick Smart is no exception. Drake was one of those terribly sad souls who suffered from acute depression for most of  his life, the Tamworth-born singer/songwriter meeting an untimely end through an overdose of the prescription drug amitriptyline in 1974 at the tragically young age of 26. He didn’t even make it into the 27 Club, that band of super-talented misfortunates that had all life extinguished from them at the age of 27, mainly due to the ravages of alcohol and hard drugs. Think Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse to name but a few. However, Drake was never the wild man of music like the others.  He was incredibly shy, introverted and withdrawn, a lonely tragic figure who never achieved real recognition in his lifetime. It is only since his death that he has become famous, the subtle power of both his words and music brought to life again by Smart and the like.

In this project Nick Smart pays homage to Nick Drake by deconstructing his music and re-imagining it in a more upbeat, buoyant and jazzy way. Drake’s work is painfully beautiful and sad, the themes of life and death, loneliness and loss his default position. In the hands of Smart the darkness of Drake’s message is given a little shaft of light.

(Nick Smart's Black Eyed Dog)

In the song “Black Eyed Dog”, with its premonition of death, the music takes on a yeah to life feel rather than a lament about the coming of the end, Claire Martin singing joyously and jazzily along to the grooving band after the initial quiet and folky beginning. “River Man”, one of Drake’s  most exquisite creations, lends itself perfectly for  a jazz treatment. Harmonically it constantly veers between major which symbolises light and minor, the bringer of darkness, and the Lydian twist at the end is pure magic – an improviser’s dream, Martin intoning the words beautifully, the piece fading into nothingness through a series of hypnotically repeated phrases. “One Of These First” was originally a breezy country-feel waltz but Smart transforms this into a throbbing South African  township-like celebration of life, the rhythm fluctuating between 11/8 and the more symmetrical 12/8.  Once again, we evanesce into oblivion at the very end.

Julian Siegel’s Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Nick Smart, featured brand new music by Julian, including re-imaginings and expansions of his music for small bands, but the centre-piece of the set was the magnificent new work entitled “Tales from the Jacquard” which draws its inspiration from the lacemaking process and the Jacquard cards which controlled the lace knitting machines. (Julian’s parents and family ran a lace manufacturing business in Nottingham’s lace market for 50 years) . The work was commissioned by Derby Jazz for his current UK tour to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Touring a 19-piece big band is not cheap and Julian was absolutely over the moon about the support he has been given for the project by, not only Derby Jazz, but also Arts Council England, EMJAZZ and Anne Rigg’s Right Tempo Music.

(Julian Siegel)

Before we entered into the world of those Nottingham machines the band roared ferociously in the high-octane opener, “Mama Badgers”, a life-enhancing gloriously funky opus. What a brilliant way to begin their set! The world premiere of “Tales of the Jacquard” was an absolute tour-de-force. The first things we heard were the sounds of the knitting machines themselves. This gave way to a spacious and reflective piano solo from Liam Noble before the big guns arrived. The music was always on the move. Sometimes it was a samba. Then it was free improv. At the climax there was a fast swinging 12-bar blues full of incendiary solos, the piece finally calming into peaceful abstraction. Three more Siegel mini-masterpieces followed. The capacity audience bayed for more. This time it wan’t a Siegel original but Fantasy in D by Cedar Walton, a fantastic work-out for two battling tenors-Siegel and Sulzmann. Everyone at Ronnie’s felt good to be alive.

It wasn’t the end though. After a breather, the room jumped with life again when Mike Flynn’s J-Sonics (Andy Davies -trumpet; Matt Telfer-sax; Clement Regert-guitar; Mike Flynn-electric bass; Gabor Dornyei-drums, Jon Newey-percussion; Grace Rodson-vocals) took the stage for the Late Late Set, a set blazing with funk, Latin and Afro-Cuban grooves to send everyone away from Ronnie’s with Spring in their hearts.

(The Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra)

Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra: Julian Siegel (saxes, clarinets, arrangements, compositions), Nick Smart (conductor), Tom Walsh, Percy Pursglove, Henry Lowther, Claus Stoetter (trumpets), Mark Nightingale, Trevor Mires, Harry Brown (trombones), Richard Henry (bass trombone and tuba), Mike Chillingworth (alto saxophone), Jason Yarde (soprano and alto saxophone), Stan Sulzmann (tenor saxophone), Tori Freestone (tenor saxophone and flute), Gemma Moore (bass clarinet and baritone saxophone), Mike Outram (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Oli Hayhurst (double and electric bass), Gene Calderazzo (drums)

Nick Smart’s Black Eyed Dog: Nick Smart (trumpet/flugel), Matthew Herd (alto saxophone), James Allsopp (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Kit Downes (piano), John Parricelli (guitar), Will Harris (double bass), Tim Giles (drums), Claire Martin (vocals), Nick Mailing (vocals)

Reviewed by Geoff Eales – Photos by Tim Dickeson

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